Feeling Blue: On Abdellatif Kechiche’s "Blue Is the Warmest Color"




Feeling Blue: On Abdellatif Kechiche’s "Blue Is the Warmest Color" by Merve Emre

October 25th, 2013 reset - +

BLUE SHUTTERS, BLUE MAILBOXES, a blue bus making the rounds in the blue-collar suburbs outside Lille; blue jeans and jackets and bags that brush together as teenagers circle one another in the schoolyard, and a blue scarf that a teenage girl named Adèle wears around her neck like a talisman; blue pen nibs bluing Adèle’s fingers as she writes in her blue notebook; blue sheets and blue pillows lining a bed where Adèle makes passable sounds of pleasure in bed with her first boyfriend, Thomas, who she later breaks up with on a bright blue bench under a cherry tree in full bloom; chipped blue nails hanging off fingers decked with cheap blue rings, fingers that belong to Beatrice — the first girl Adèle kisses and the first girl who, against the hard blue stalls of a girls’ bathroom, tells Adèle that the kiss was “nothing serious, just a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing”; blue smoke and blue light mingle with blue language at a gay club, where Adèle's best friend Valentin takes her so she can leave her blues behind. Stumbling away from Valentin and his boyfriend, Adèle preternaturally makes her way to a lesbian bar around the corner. Here, among the searching glances of older, more self-assured women, she finds her true-blue love, Emma. Emma is resplendent: a vision in a faded denim vest, haloed by a shock of punky blue hair.

In his astonishing essay On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, William Gass claims for the color blue an erotic charge that is nothing less than the essence of life. Blue Is the Warmest Color, the Palme d’Or winning film from Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche, imagines what the world might look like if this were literally true — if blue kept time with desire. In the life of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), blue is an envoy of curiosity, then lust, then love, then ecstasy.

At first, blue comes into our field of vision sharp and fast, like Beatrice’s blue bedecked fingers receiving and rebuffing Adèle’s kisses with swift nonchalance. But as Kechiche brings us closer and closer to the moment when Adèle and Emma (Léa Seydoux) meet, blue hangs in the air as vapor, light, and music, as the bluesy notes played by the French radio station, France Bleu. By the time Adèle reveals to Emma, a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, that her favorite painter — indeed, the only painter she knows — is Picasso, the detail seems destined. As it was for Picasso, so it is for Adèle, and so it is for us, wrapped and warped by blue. It is no longer a color, but an epoch and a mood, a way of seeing and being in the world.

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Before it was a movie, Blue Is the Warmest Color was a graphic novel, written and illustrated by Julie Maroh and translated into English as Blue Angel. In Maroh’s coming out story, Clementine — the original name for the main character before Kechiche changed it to match his lead actress’ name — is “just a lost kid” and Emma is her guardian angel: a spiritual and sexual guide who frees Clementine from her self-hatred and the hatred of others through the power of love. For Maroh, this narrative propels all coming out stories, real or fictional. “We mostly go through the same steps when we realize we’re gay and must come out,” Maroh claimed in an interview with The Wall Street Journal some weeks ago. “[The main character] has to face the fact that she’s gay, and all it implies.”

Maroh’s insistence on what all gays must do when coming out is closely linked to what she has criticized as “the banalization of homosexuality,” which as far as I understand it, means refusing to identify with one’s sexuality as a radical social and political cause. But as Maroh explained it in a recent blog postBlue Angel was not written for the “subversive” — gays who want to “keep things out of the norm” — but for what Maroh must conceive of as a more mainstream or normal group of gay readers. One of the lessons of Blue Angel, then, is that queer anti-sociality is a dangerous thing for love. Crucially, Clementine and Emma’s relationship falls apart because Clementine refuses to treat her sexuality as “a social and political thing,” the force that “draws her to others.” “For me,” she writes, “its the most intimate thing there is. [Emma] calls it cowardice, but all I want is to be happy.” The price Clementine will pay for her cowardice is high indeed. Disowned by her parents, driven to infidelity with a man and prescription drug abuse, she dies in Emma’s absolving arms from pulmonary arterial hypertension — a broken heart.

Blue Angel is all angst and melodrama, a love story bogged down by its creator’s good intentions. Blue Is the Warmest Color borrows liberally from Maroh’s visual aesthetic — she also inks her panels blue with varying degrees of expressive intensity — but the film does away with Maroh’s didactic and weepy dénouement. (There is one shot early on of a fidgety Adèle accompanying Emma to a pride parade, but Kechiche doesn’t make much of it.) In contrast to its source material, Blue Is the Warmest Color is not a coming out story — we never find out whether Adèle has come out to her family or friends. It’s not even a “lesbian drama,” except incidentally. Rather, Kechiche is preoccupied with the everyday things that conspire to make loving another person unfathomably difficult as time goes by. Simply put, Blue Is the Warmest Color is one person’s story of growing up in the colorless space carved out by heartbreak.

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In one of his bluest meditations on blue, Gass writes, “The blue we breathe, I fear, is what we want from life and only find in fiction. For the voyeur, fiction is what's called going all the way.” In many ways, some more talked about than others, Blue Is the Warmest Color is a film about going all the way — sexually, no doubt, but more to Gass’s point, aesthetically. Blue is the faith we misplace in fiction, both the fiction we read and the fictions we create about the people we desire.

For Kechiche, the two are deeply entwined. When Adèle and Emma meet, everything Adèle knows of love she has learned from her favorite book, Pierre de Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne: an unfinished novel first stitched in blue paper in 1731 and devoured by the ladies of the Blue Stockings Society for its depiction of love at first sight. “In love,” Marivaux observes, “the soul feels the presence of a master who flatters but with absolute authority, and does not consult.” Romantique, n’est-ce pas? It is until it isn’t — until we realize that what we really want is to be consulted, to be handled with care and consideration, not authority. In Blue Is the Warmest Color, as in his earlier film Games of Love and Chance (2003), based on Marivaux’s 1730 play of the same name, Kechiche offers us real people blue-balled by the romantic promises of fiction — the stolen glances, hungry kisses, and happy endings.

Fast-forward some five years or so. The blue is gone from Emma’s hair; in its place, a platinum sheen better suited to her position as a respected painter. Emma’s success is in no small part due to her “muse” Adèle — nursery school teacher by day, Emma’s model and housekeeper by night. In Emma’s house, Adèle encounters images of herself in naked repose, breasts bared, legs spread, a cigarette dangling from her lips, seeing herself always and only as Emma has seen her during their years together.

Despite these intimations of intimacy, the lovers are distant. They don’t have sex. They barely talk. As it turns out, they have very little to talk about now. Adèle knows nothing of Emma’s painterly idols, Schiele and Klimt, nor can she hold her own in the breathless art-school chatter that turns Emma on. Emma can barely conceal her disdain for Adèle’s bourgeois yearning to take care of other people’s children, insisting that she pursue a proper passion. There are no shades of blue left in the life they’re barely holding together. There are only the green pinpricks of envy, the red-hot anger of betrayal, and finally, the black hole of despair and regret. 

Heartbroken, everyone mostly asks the same questions, and we ask them over and over again until their banality becomes another source of pain. Where did it go wrong? Why can’t I fix it? How do I live like this? Never moralizing and always particular, Kechiche doesn’t give us an answer so much as he peels back the question, touching every nerve rubbed raw when one moves through an unhappiness that seems totally and completely one’s own. What’s extraordinary about Blue Is the Warmest Color is how through its particularity, the film makes Adèle’s blue bruised psyche sharply and essentially human. To give us so much blue only to take it away strains the eyes and the heart, until Adèle’s truth is ours: being without blue is no way to be.

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Merve Emre is an English Language and Literature graduate student at Yale.

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